‘Urgent. Oxygen needed’: Nepalis mobilise to take charge in Covid crisis | Global development

‘Urgent. Oxygen needed’: Nepalis mobilise to take charge in Covid crisis | Global development


A ping and: “ICU bed needed. Please it’s urgent.” Another ping: “Where can I find Remdesivir. EMERGENCY.” Ping: “Very urgent oxygen cylinder needed, patient at last stage.” The messages never let up; a constant stream of posts pleading for hospital beds, oxygen, plasma and medicine.

It’s not Nepal’s government helpline, but an online group set up by a 24-year-old public health graduate.

When Prashikchhya Parajuli and her friends saw the rise of coronavirus cases in India, they knew Nepal would be next. They launched a Viber group to share health advice with the public, but it was soon swamped with messages begging for help. In response to every desperate request, advice is given, phone numbers are shared and tips on where to find a hospital bed are passed on.

“There is a public health crisis and a political crisis,” says Parajuli. “People are crying out for help but they are not being heard. The government is preoccupied with its own survival. So everyone is doing their best from their own side. Even those who have lost loved ones are still trying to help. It’s heart-wrenching.”

In Nepal, the battle against the pandemic is being fought not just by medics in hospitals, but by volunteers and activists through social media, online groups and community organising, while political leaders are widely seen as incompetent and indifferent.

Last week the prime minister, KP Sharma Oli, lost a vote of confidence in parliament but retained his post after rival political parties were unable to form a new government. The political turmoil began in December, after Oli dissolved parliament and called for early elections in an apparent effort to avoid a power-sharing agreement. The move was deemed unconstitutional, prompting weeks of political manoeuvring by rival parties just as cases of Covid-19 were starting to soar.

The country’s fragile health system has been overwhelmed, with 44% of people tested in the first week of May found to be infected with the virus. According to official figures, in the past week there have been on average 183 deaths and more than 8,600 new cases a day, up from less than 200 cases a day in the first week of April. But experts say the true figures are likely to be much higher.

“The situation is stretched. It’s really bad,” says Anup Bastola, chief consultant at Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital in Kathmandu. “I get calls asking for ventilators many times every day … It’s a terrible time. I warned people there would be a second wave, but I never thought it would happen like this.”

Elke Wisch, Unicef’s country representative, says there is an urgent need for in-kind donations to combat the “alarming” rise in cases. “Care staff are stretched to the limit, hospitals and health centres are unable to cope and there is not enough oxygen to support the rapidly increasing number of people requiring treatment,” she says.

And so, Nepalis are turning to social media – and one another – for help.

“It is the government’s responsibility to deal with this, but if the government is not doing enough, we have to step up. It’s a crisis,” says Luna Ranjit, a member of the Covid Alliance for Nepal, which is mobilising a response on multiple fronts.

The alliance has focused efforts on securing vaccines for the country, where only around 1% of the population has received two vaccine doses. “The most urgent need is oxygen, but if we are going to stop these surges coming again and again, we need vaccines,” says Ranjit.

With India pausing the export of vaccines, the alliance has been lobbying the US embassy in Nepal and US lawmakers to redirect some of the country’s excess supply to Nepal.

But Ranjit accepts the limits of a citizen-led response. “It seems like civil society is shouldering the bigger burden but our efforts are not centralised and so there is lots of duplication,” she says. “It’s somewhat haphazard.”

People wait to refill oxygen cylinders in Kathmandu, 13 May
People wait to refill oxygen cylinders in Kathmandu, 13 May. Covid cases are rising fast in Nepal, where there is an acute shortage of oxygen for patients. Photograph: Niranjan Shrestha/AP

This has not stopped the efforts of dozens of groups, inside and outside Nepal, often composed of urban young people who were schooled in the response to the 2015 earthquake. They include teams who are making ventilation equipment and PPE, providing food relief, setting up helplines and importing oxygen.

Samaya Khadka , of volunteer-run network Covid Connect Nepal, says his team has been working for two weeks without rest to find hospitals beds, oxygen and ventilators for hundreds of worried families. After requests are verified, the team start calling hospitals and any contacts they have for help.

“We are working almost 24 hours a day. Yesterday we were up until 3am until we found a hospital bed for someone,” says 20-year-old Khadka, who has a team of more than 150 young volunteers across the country. “If we save just one life, it’s worth it.”

The need is far greater than the available resources. On Saturday Khadka’s group received 315 requests for help, but were only able to solve 19 of them. However, he says, when their energy flags, they are encouraged by the grateful messages to them on social media.

Ping: “With your help we found a ventilator … Now his condition is much better. Thank you very much. Hats off to you guys.” Ping: “Thanks for all that you guys are doing at this time of crisis.” Ping: “I’m so glad we have you to lean on in this situation. Much love.”



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